It seems inevitable now that Richard Flanagan would come to know Siegfried Heidl better than John Friedrich. Heidl is a work of fiction, but he is Flanagan’s creation; Friedrich on the other hand, when all is said and done, was a man Flanagan spent just three weeks with, some 30 years ago.
Yet, Friedrich has haunted Flanagan. One of the most notorious conmen and corporate criminals in Australian history, Friedrich embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars while serving as the managing director of the National Safety Council of Australia, a rescue and training outfit that employed more than 400 people. He was arrested in 1989.
Subsequent investigations revealed Friedrich was not an Australian citizen, did not possess any valid birth certificate, and did not appear on any electoral roll.
Flanagan met Friedrich in 1991. A struggling author who was yet to complete his first novel, Flanagan was working as a labourer and near-broke; he and his wife were expecting twins. The offer to ghost-write Friedrich’s story for $10,000 in six weeks was one he could not refuse.
Then, half-way through the project, just three weeks away from trial, Friedrich committed suicide. Flanagan would later say he was left to “ghostwrite a ghost.”
The result was ‘Codename Iago,’ which was published as Friedrich’s autobiography. (The title is a reference to the time Friedrich said he spent as a CIA operative.) Flanagan was far from proud of the book, but the money would help him complete his own novel. The New York Times described ‘Death of a River Guide’—published in 1994—as “haunting and ambitious.”
Today, Flanagan remembers the transition between ‘Codename Iago’ and ‘Death of a River Guide’ as one of “excitement and euphoria puncturing long periods of frustration and despair.”
In an email interview with the Sunday Times, Flanagan said: “I glimpsed the transcendent freedom writing is, but only for a moment or two, and then it would recede and vanish, and I would spend weeks trying to find it again, hoping that then I might finally ride that wave to its end.”
Some three decades later, the Tasmanian writer is the author of seven novels and one of only four Australians to win the Man Booker Prize; critically acclaimed, he has been much awarded and is routinely hailed as one of the finest writers of his generation.
Yet, nothing about his career was inevitable. Before he received the prestigious prize, he had seriously considered returning to work as a manual labourer, just so he could afford to complete ‘First Person.’
As he stood at the podium, accepting the 2013 Man Booker Prize for ‘The Narrow Road to the North,’ Flanagan reflected on how he did not come from a literary tradition. His roots are instead in “a tiny mining town in the rainforest in an island at the end of the world.” His grandparents were illiterate. Still, Flanagan has an almost missionary conviction that novels are more relevant than ever.
They are what distinguishes humans as a species and are one of the supreme expressions of a story, he told his audience that night. “Novels are not content. Nor are they are a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life,” he concluded. “Novels are life, or they are nothing.”
If nothing else, this is true of ‘First Person’ which feels like a novel for our times. Flanagan based it on his own experiences with Friedrich, but would-be novelist and ghostwriter Kif is an almost irredeemably mediocre artist, and Sigfried Heidl is mesmerizing and unsettling; his grip on our imaginations is inexplicable yet undeniable.
Flanagan says he spent three years with Heidl as he tried to create a character who devoted himself to allowing others to invent. In ‘First Person’ a kind of claustrophobic terror grips the ghostwriter as he is almost deliberately unravelled; Heidl’s lies echo in the darkness inside Kif himself. “Maybe he is not so much evil himself, as a reminder of the evil within each of us,” Flanagan told The Sunday Times.
Reflecting on this in a piece in the Financial Times, Flanagan wrote: ‘In this strange time, lies are presented to us as reality, truth is denied by other lies, and the more implausible the lie the more likely people are to believe it. And behind this shroud of delirium is the growing horror we have neither the imagination nor moral clarity to fully grasp: growing injustice, permanent war, exoduses of the dispossessed, ecological catastrophe.’
Few journalists can resist making the connection to Trump, but Flanagan says now that he began writing ‘First Person’ some years before Trump’s rise to power. “Trump’s only effect on me was to remind me how God gets all the good stories, while a novelist has to make do with the merely plausible. No novelist could have survived the public ridicule if they had invented the story of Trump.”
Questions of how autobiographical the new book is also do come up. Both the real and fictional ghostwriters face similar circumstances at the outset, including the imminent pressure of becoming fathers. Then there are the near death experiences: lost at sea, Kif almost drowns, an experience that leaves him with a destructive and profound fear of his own mortality.
Flanagan too nearly drowned – he was trapped in an air pocket for several hours in a rapid – but has said it has left him instead with an overwhelming sense of the wonder. The actual experience is one he tries to forget he admits, adding wryly, “But it does, as Dr Johnson observed, serve to concentrate the mind.”
Readers will be curious too about writing itself. Kif’s struggle to find himself as a novelist alienates him from everything and everyone he loves; at some points his despair seems unshakeable.
It is something Flanagan understands: “Perhaps a writer is simply one who doubts his own ability to write more than others.” A writer might spend years working and reworking their sentences and paragraphs, until one word joins successfully enough with another, and a story is born. “To be honest, writing is a mystery irreducible to a word. But then most worthwhile things are.”
In the end, Flanagan embraces his own uncertainty as a sign of progress, saying, “…you are always losing as well as gaining, rather like filling a bucket full of holes with water. You come to realise that you know less than when you began, but you are more accepting of your own ignorance. I knew a great deal about writing before I wrote. Now I know nothing. Each book is a new beginning, and no less easy and all the more exciting for that.”
First published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 28 January, 2018. By Smriti Daniel.